HC Deb 12 January 2000 vol 342 cc287-301

4.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the outcome of our review of the implications of a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights as it affects the armed forces.

The House will recall that, on 27 September 1999, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment in a case brought by four ex-service personnel of the United Kingdom armed forces who had each been discharged on the grounds of their homosexuality. My predecessor issued a statement at the time making it clear that the Government accepted the judgment of the court— as British Governments have always complied with such rulings—and that we would be studying carefully the implications of the decision. He also announced that those cases already in the system—that is, personnel in the process of being discharged on grounds of homosexuality—would be put on hold.

In the light of the court's decisions, it was clear that the existing policy was not legally sustainable. We accordingly asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to set in hand an urgent review of policy in that area. That review has now been completed, and I am able to announce the outcome today.

Our starting point has been to develop a revised policy that preserves the operational effectiveness of our armed forces, respects the rights of the individual, and takes full account of the court ruling. The chiefs of staff accept the need to change the existing policy and have been fully involved in the process of developing a revised policy. I have discussed the subject with them on a number of occasions. They have endorsed the outcome of the review.

We have drawn on the experience of other countries— in particular, Australia—and have taken account of the last formal study of the subject in the United Kingdom, undertaken in 1995. Moreover, we have reflected the court's conclusion that legally we are obliged to adopt an approach that regards sexual orientation as essentially a private matter for the individual.

There is, of course, no doubt that the armed forces are a unique institution and occupy a unique place in our society. We expect a lot of them. They cannot choose the people they work and live with, often in difficult, cramped conditions and for sustained periods. Operational effectiveness depends on team cohesion and the maintenance of trust and loyalty. As a result, standards of behaviour are imposed on members of the armed forces that can be more demanding than those required by society at large. That is why we need a code of conduct to govern the attitude and approach to the personal relationships of those serving in the armed forces.

The code will apply across the forces, regardless of service, rank, gender or sexual orientation. It will provide a clear framework within which people in the services can live and work, and it will complement existing policies, such as zero tolerance towards harassment, discrimination and bullying. I emphasise that we are not tightening the rules on heterosexual relationships.

The code is not an abstract legal document full of rules and regulations. It has been developed by service experts who understand fully the operational needs and day-to-day practicalities of the armed forces. Personal relationships do not ever lend themselves to precise prescription and the code recognises explicitly that It is not practicable to list every type of conduct that may constitute social misbehaviour". Therefore, we have placed at the heart of the code what we call the service test, set out in the following terms: Have the actions or behaviour of an individual adversely impacted or are they likely to impact on the efficiency or operational effectiveness of the Service? In using the code, commanding officers will have to apply the service test through the exercise of their good judgment, discretion and common sense—the essence of command and the effective management of people. I am arranging for copies of the code to be placed in the Library of the House.

The ECHR ruling makes it clear that the existing policy in relation to homosexuality must change. As all personal behaviour will be regulated by the code of conduct with the object of maintaining the operational effectiveness of the three services, there is no longer a reason to deny homosexuals the opportunity of a career in the armed forces. Accordingly, we have decided that it is right that the existing ban should be lifted. As no primary or secondary legislation is required, with effect from today, homosexuality will no longer be a bar to service in Britain's armed forces.

A range of briefing material is being issued to commanding officers to explain the code of conduct and to give them detailed guidance on how it should be implemented. That makes it clear that the chiefs of staff commend the principles of the new policy and are committed to ensuring that it works.

I recognise that there may be some concerns within the armed forces and elsewhere over this new policy, but I believe that the changes I have described offer the best way forward in terms of providing an approach that maintains operational effectiveness, is within the law, and recognises the rights of the individual.

Implementing the changes successfully will be a challenge for leadership at all levels in the armed forces, but such challenges are not new, and all three services will be equal to the task. With the commitment which is in place from the very highest levels of the chain of command, I am confident that our armed forces will adapt to the change in the professional manner for which they are rightly held in the very highest regard.

There will be those who would have preferred to continue to exclude homosexuals, but the law is the law. We cannot choose the decisions we implement. The status quo is simply not an option. The code centres on the paramount need to maintain the operational effectiveness of the armed forces. I have no doubt that it is the best way forward.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

First, I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me an early sight of his statement. I appreciate that courtesy and, given the nature of the subject, I am sure that the House will too.

The Secretary of State referred to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and set out why the Government have decided to change existing policy. At the outset, may I say that I regret the nature of the ruling. I have always believed—as did both the previous and present Governments—that we should follow the advice of the armed forces. That advice has always been that lifting the ban would adversely affect operational effectiveness.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to state that, because the armed forces have a special function and exist solely to protect our rights, a careful balance has always had to be struck. I regret that the court chose to dismiss the advice of the armed forces. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the matter has never been to do with prejudice, but with the operational effectiveness of our armed forces?

However, the fact is that the Government have decided to act on the ruling and to implement the change in policy by means of the code of conduct. As the Secretary of State said, they do so without having to introduce legislation or hold a debate. Today, we must focus simply on the code's practical implementation, in the hope that we can iron out what we perceive to be some of the major problems that may lie ahead.

The code is all about sexual behaviour, as the Secretary of State made clear. I agree with him that, in this context, the only way to write a code such as this is to make it as broad as possible and not to be specific. However, despite the guidance and advice in the statement, the matter boils down to a two-line service test, which in essence comprises only one sentence. How that test is operated will be critical. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore place the guidance and the advice to commanding officers in the Library of the House, so that hon. Members can see how he intends the code to operate in practice?

In addition, I believe that four questions must be answered if we are to understand how the code is to work, and whether it will change how the armed forces operate. The first question concerns the rights of all service men and women.

The issue was neatly summed up by the former Minister for the Armed Forces, now the Secretary of State for Scotland. In our last debate on this matter in 1996, he raised the case of a service woman who had asked him whether her rights would be protected if the ban were lifted. She explained that she would not now be expected to share intimate surroundings with a man, irrespective of whether he had sexual intentions towards her. She went on to ask how Parliament would protect her rights if she had to share accommodation with another woman whom she believed to be sexually attracted her. She said that the matter was not one of prejudice but about her rights to privacy—much as the Government have set out today.

I accept that the question is incredibly difficult to answer, as the Secretary of State said. However, now we have a code covering all sexual behaviour, both heterosexual and homosexual. What guidance has the Secretary of State given to commanding officers for dealing with such a situation? Furthermore, in dealing with such a matter, different services and units may implement the test set out by the right hon. Gentleman but arrive at very different solutions. That could lead to concerns in other units about injustice if they are not treated in exactly the same way as others.

Secondly, what provision has the Secretary of State made in the guidance to commanding officers about those placed in authority over junior leaders, cadets and other young men and women who enter the armed forces at an early age? The right hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment concerning such matters during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Does he agree that the nature of forces discipline and the way in which the forces operate, which gives huge power to those in authority, places an even greater duty of care than exists outside the forces? How will he deal with that, and what advice has he given?

Thirdly, how do the Government propose to deal with the disparity in approach between the three services as well as between units of each of the services? Recent cases such as the Army Air Corps colonel and a female lieutenant-commander in the Women's Royal Naval Service led to very different outcomes. Even though the colonel was acquitted at his court-martial, he was fired from the Army, while the lieutenant-commander has subsequently been promoted. Such disparities in treatment will have to be dealt with, particularly now that this has widened to such a degree.

As for those serving in the same unit, although problems and conflicts arising from relationships between different sexes have been contained—partly because there are fewer occasions when men and women are in command over each other—there is, as a result of the judgment, a possibility that same-sex relationships that develop quite legitimately outside the barracks or the ship may lead to conflicts and difficulties within those units, especially if the individuals are of different ranks. What guidelines has the Secretary of State given to commanding officers? What advice has he given them about how to deal with such relationships? Should they be declared immediately, and will the individuals be allowed to serve in the same unit or barrack room if challenged, for example, about the possibility of favouritism from others who may perceive there to be an issue?

Because of this huge change that will affect the behaviour of armed forces personnel, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a fundamental review of the effects of the policy at the earliest possibly opportunity? I believe that there should be. As and when the Conservative party returns to power, we will pledge to conduct such a review and act on the advice of the armed forces. I hope that the Secretary of State will do the same.

Surely one of the greatest concerns arising from the judgment is the way in which the convention is being applied to the military. There is a danger that issues such as the role of women in the front line and even our training policy could be decided by the European Court of Human Rights and not by our own Government and armed forces. Has the Secretary of State discussed the matter with other signatories to the convention, many of whom have opt-outs regarding its operation? If he has not, will he undertake to do so as a matter of urgency?

In conclusion, all of us can only hope that there will be no ill effects as a result of this change of policy and that the Government's policy will succeed in resolving the matters that may arise. I hope that the Government will pledge to the House today to undertake whatever action is necessary to rectify any problems that may arise immediately.

Mr. Hoon

I begin by welcoming the significant shift that has been obvious from the comments of the Opposition Front Bench in recent days. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) originally appeared to condemn out of hand the judges of the European Court of Human Rights and questioned their right to decide this sort of question, so I am delighted that he has now accepted the decision. He has set out a series of practical and sensible observations about the way in which it should operate. In particular, he emphasised the paramount importance of maintaining the operational effectiveness of our armed forces. I emphasised that point in my earlier comments, and it is also emphasised in the code of conduct.

The hon. Gentleman said, rightly, that the code is set out in broad terms. It is inevitable, when dealing with delicate questions of personal relationships, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, that commanding officers in particular will have to operate extremely sensitively in dealing with these matters. Again, that is set out in the code of conduct, but it is not practicable to list every type of conduct that might constitute social misbehaviour. Commanding officers already have to deal with issues according to the circumstances in which they arise, as is inevitable when dealing with delicate matters.

I am willing to place the guidance issued to commanding officers in the Library of the House of Commons, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will take the opportunity to see the detailed way in which commanding officers are to be guided. Ultimately, however, commanding officers must have regard to the circumstances with which they must deal, and they will apply the code of conduct in a sensitive and sensible way according to the cases that confront them.

I was a little disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that we would need to review policy. It is difficult to see where a review might lead. I have made it clear, and he appeared to accept it, that it was necessary to implement the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. If he accepts the importance of implementing the decision, it is difficult to see how it can be reviewed, other than by saying—as, I regret, the hon. Gentleman originally appeared to—that we should seek not to implement it. We are bound to implement the decision, and we have done so in a way that is wholly consistent with operational effectiveness.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the United Kingdom ratified the European convention on human rights as long ago as 1951. It has been accepted by all UK Governments ever since, and decisions have been complied with by successive Governments. As far as discussions with other signatory states are concerned, the hon. Gentleman may find it interesting to know that only one NATO nation appears to have a formal ban on homosexuals being members of the armed forces. Clearly, this has not been a problem for NATO nations.

The hon. Gentleman properly emphasised the point that problems between the sexes are every bit as sensitive, delicate and difficult as problems that might occur involving members of the same sex. The code of conduct deals firmly with such matters on a non-discriminatory basis, which is the only way to proceed. I am pleased to welcome the hon. Gentleman's measured comments. We need to emphasise the need to preserve operational effectiveness in our armed forces to ensure that British forces maintain the excellent standards admired around the world.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I was one of the Members who, when this matter was debated in 1996, supported the amendment tabled by Edwina Currie, to whom I pay tribute.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common-sense decision that he has taken this afternoon. Since it stems directly from a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, I may point out that, had the Conservative party remained in power, it would have had to make a decision on the matter. As Conservative Governments accepted the authority of the European Court of Human Rights throughout their periods in office, it is difficult to see what other decision they could have come to.

Over the years—indeed, centuries—homosexuals have served at every level in our armed forces with loyalty and distinction. Is it not better, therefore, to accept that fact than pretend that it does not exist? It will not do for people to say that they oppose discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in principle while they act differently in practice.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his observations. He is right to say that as this was a significant decision by the European Court of Human Rights, it was necessary for the Government to implement it. I am equally grateful to the service chiefs for the constructive way in which they have approached a change in policy. It is not enough just to analyse legally the decision of the court; it is necessary to find a policy by which to implement it in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to the service chiefs for their constructive and positive approach to this matter. They have drawn up the code of conduct, which will allow us both to preserve operational effectiveness and to ensure that the rights of individuals are properly protected, as my right hon. Friend suggested.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I too thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me an advance copy of his statement. The Liberal Democrats welcome his announcement. The European Court of Human Rights has shown that homosexual service in the armed forces of the United Kingdom is an issue of civil liberties. In that respect, the sexual orientation of an individual should be no bar to service, either in recruitment or promotion.

I have served with hon. Members on both sides of the House in the parliamentary armed forces scheme and have heard about some of the concerns of members of the armed forces. In my constituency, I have also heard about those concerns, but our armed forces must reflect the make-up of the modern society from which they are drawn. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said that there are no occasions on which men or women have direct control over each other. That is clearly wrong. Every warship in the Royal Navy is run according to the chain of command, whether that is male or female.

The Secretary of State pointed out that the implementation of the new code of conduct will be a challenge for the leadership of our armed forces. He is right. Does he agree that great sensitivity to the concerns of gay and straight personnel will need to be exercised, if a cultural sea-change is to be achieved without damaging the morale and efficiency of our armed forces?

The Secretary of State referred to the experience of other nations which have implemented such a code of conduct. Will he tell the House which other countries he has consulted? I met some Australians this week, who confirmed that their overall experience in this matter was positive.

I have a few questions for the Secretary of State. Does he agree that the delay in changing the policy, and the continuation of the Tory fight with the European Court means that the retrospective claims for compensation for dismissed personnel are likely to be substantial? Is he aware that £60 million has already been paid to 5,000 service women, who were obliged to leave the service on the ground of pregnancy?

Does he agree that, as MOD budgets are already tight, the Government's belated realisation that the UK armed forces should reflect their society is likely to cost the MOD money? How many compensation cases does he expect? What is his estimate of the cost?

Finally, will he confirm that, in the UK, if people are fit for the task—whether they are black or white, male or female, straight or gay—they should be welcome in our armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I shall deal solely with the specific questions put by the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his observations. We delayed only as long as it took to review properly the implications of the court's decision, and to consider extremely carefully their effect on the armed forces. We obviously wanted to ensure that we agreed on a code of conduct that was accepted by the service chiefs and by the armed forces. We took the minimum amount of time to do that. I agree that any continuing uncertainty would have cost money, but, perhaps more crucially, it would have left the armed forces unsure as to which policy they were required to implement. I do not accept that there was undue delay; there was a proper delay—consistent with the need to find the right answer.

I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman precise figures as to the cost of any claims for compensation, because we are still negotiating with those people who are affected. However, when that process has been completed, I am willing to write to him to give him an indication of the costs.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

I very much welcome the fact that the Government have accepted with good grace the ruling of the European Court. I look forward to reading, in the next defence White Paper, that sexual orientation will be included with all the other high ideals that we set for our society. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) having a fit of apoplexy, but we are a decent society now and we must reflect the way in which we live today. Unquestionably, the armed forces are up to that job—they are able to respond—but naturally there will be some concerns, especially among people from the lower ranks.

The Secretary of State has told us that the higher ranks are strongly committed to the programme, but will he answer two questions? First, what extra training has been given to members of the higher ranks to enable them to ensure that the information gets through to others in a way that helps them to understand what this will mean for them in their working lives? Secondly, because of the unease from the ranks, is there any way in which people may be able to share some concerns—many of which are unreal? They would be much better put at ease by people who have been properly trained.

I very much welcome today's announcement.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations. I shall deal solely with her specific questions. On extra training, approximately 3,000 packs of detailed information and guidance for commanding officers have been sent out, and should have been opened in connection with the statement that I am making to the House today, so commanding officers will have detailed briefing, which they will pass down the chain of command.

I am confident that the concerns that my hon. Friend mentioned in her second question will be allayed by the clear leadership given by service chiefs. As I said earlier, I am extremely grateful to them for the leadership that they have shown in this difficult area.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he sounded deeply unconvincing when making his statement? Does he further accept that the announcement will be greeted with dismay through all three services, which surely, by their faithful and gallant service over generations, have earned the right to be exempted from these lunatic politically correct nostrums? Will he assure the House of Commons that he will listen very carefully to the chiefs as they report back to him, as this militarily disabling rule comes into force?

Mr. Hoon

I always listen with the greatest care to the hon. Gentleman's observations on the armed forces because I recognise that, in the course of a lifetime's interest in the armed forces, he has accumulated a good deal of knowledge. I am slightly concerned that he might just be out of touch on this question, and that he may not have reflected properly on his observations, especially in light of what the service chiefs have been saying on the subject. The service chiefs have made it clear that they endorse and support the code of conduct. They were largely responsible for its drafting. As the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, it is important that we find ways to ensure that the decision of the European Court is implemented in a way that is consistent with service effectiveness.

Therefore, I do not accept the observations that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has made. Sadly, they sound very much like the observations that were made by very many people—members of the Conservative party, perhaps not wholly familiar with the services—in relation to the admission of women to the armed forces. In the short time that I have been Secretary of State for Defence, I have learned how successful and effective women have been in the armed forces.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decision and his announcement today will be very welcome indeed? First, it will be welcome in upholding the authority of the European Court of Justice and its interpretation of the European convention on human rights, which is the basis on which we, as a party, fought the last general election and which has been part of our party policy for a long time.

Secondly, is my right hon. Friend aware that, some years ago, from the Opposition Front Bench, I moved that homosexuality should not be regarded as grounds for debarment from service in the armed forces? I did so for two reasons. I did so, first, for the sake of the human rights of the individuals involved, whatever one may think of people's particular sexual preferences; and secondly, because it removed a major cause of blackmail, suspicion and unhappiness.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we had obvious examples, including the major scandalous trial in Cyprus, in which representatives of foreign powers—the cold war is irrelevant to this—were prepared to use what they perceived as weakness, shyness or disability to blackmail people to force them to release secrets. There are strong and powerful military reasons for accepting this proposal.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend tempts me to make a party political point about the incorporation of the European convention on human rights. I recall that Lord Hailsham and the late Keith Joseph conducted a campaign in the 1970s calling for its incorporation. It is unfortunate that some Conservative Members have forgotten their party's history. [Interruption.] It is suggested that they were not born, but I rather think that they were.

It is right and important that we find a mechanism for emphasising the rights of the individual while not in any way jeopardising the effectiveness of our service personnel. I am sure that this code of conduct, which was endorsed by the service chiefs, will achieve that.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

If the chiefs of staff really have not conveyed to Ministers the sheer depths of the anger in the armed forces at being forced to share their homes—the cramped barracks and ships in which they often live—with practising homosexuals, will the Secretary of State say whether, in his forthcoming and fairly frequent meetings with his French counterpart, he will discuss the fact that France has a derogation from all matters connected with military discipline in the European convention on human rights? Are there any circumstances whatever impinging on the morale and effectiveness of our armed forces under which the right hon. Gentleman would be willing to stand up to the European Court and apply for us to have such a derogation?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman needs to study a little more carefully the way in which the European convention operates. He needs to understand that the French derogation was secured at the start of the process. Since 1951, no Government—neither Conservative nor Labour—have sought to negotiate the kind of derogation that he advocates. In reality, it is not possible to secure such a derogation after the event; it would not have any effect on decided cases. I made it clear in my opening remarks that it is not possible for Conservative Members to pick and choose the European Court decisions that they would implement. That is simply not possible.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcome to the many people who have long argued and campaigned for lifting the ban on gays serving in the military. In 1998, I took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme and had numerous discussions over many months on this with various ranks. We discussed in detail how military discipline could cope with such a change and, although it was clear that there was resistance to change in all ranks of the Army, it was acknowledged that, when it came to the bottom line, military discipline and regulation would ensure that the code could be operated properly.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating ex-service men and women in the Rank Outsiders organisation on the dignified way in which they have campaigned so successfully on this issue? Will he also ensure that the new codes are monitored effectively, so that the House can have another opportunity to ensure that they have operated properly and have not prejudiced any member of the armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his measured and thoughtful observations. On his final point, I made it clear that the services' policy of not tolerating discrimination and harassment will apply to those who are affected by my statement.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I think that I am the Member of this House who has the most recent service in the regular armed forces. I do not presume to speak for members of the armed forces because that would be wrong, but I have some understanding of how they feel. The Secretary of State should understand that the vast majority are not homophobic—a dreadful word—and know that there have always been homosexuals in the armed forces, many of whom have served with great distinction.

Does the Secretary of State understand, however, that when members of the armed forces hear of this decision they will, for very good reasons, feel betrayed? They will think that political correctness has triumphed over operational effectiveness and the defence of the realm. Furthermore, they will believe that the Government are undermining our distinguished armed forces so that they will no longer have the respect that they have had up to now. I have a supplementary question on a point that may further undermine the armed forces. Will gay partners be allowed to share married quarters?

Mr. Hoon

I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads his contribution, as he may in Hansard tomorrow, he will ask himself whether his first two sentences about the role and attitudes of the armed forces and the position of homosexuals in the past were wholly consistent with his next observation. There was a clear inconsistency in what he said.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to read my statement carefully because it is not in any way motivated by political correctness. It is motivated by a clear decision of the European Court of Human Rights, with which the Conservative party, in the unlikely event of its ever returning to power, would have to deal. That is the position that we have taken. We have dealt with the matter in co-operation with the service chiefs. He is right not to try and substitute his view of the services for those of the chiefs. They have accepted the need to implement the court's decision.

I make it clear that homosexual couples will not have lights or access to service quarters because they will not be married and will not therefore be treated any differently from other unmarried couples.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing a sensible solution, which we all accept, to this tricky problem. I welcome the practical response from the Opposition Front Benchers.

In a modern society, it is important that we have armed forces that reflect that society. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to make the point that almost every other NATO nation operates a similar policy? Will he also pass on to the service chiefs the congratulations of Labour Members on the practical, common-sense way in which they have introduced a proposal that will solve the problem without in any way challenging the efficiency of our armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. On his observation about the practical response from Opposition Front Benchers, I cannot help but reflect that they may have to do a little more work on educating those who sit behind them, but they have made progress in recent days and no doubt that progress can continue.

Every time that an hon. Member has commented on the need for the armed forces to reflect society, it has caused certain Conservative Members apoplexy, not least the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. Regardless of any ideological debate about whether we should try to ensure that the armed forces reflect society, the forces recruit about 25,000—mostly young—people every year, so they inevitably reflect the society in which we live. There are different policies in different countries in NATO, but, as I said earlier, only one NATO country has a formal ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Will the Secretary of State ensure that, for the isolated people who may need advice, Rank Outsiders will be able to advertise its helpline number in armed forces journals, which it has so far been barred from doing?

The Secretary of State said that the change was being made because the law is the law. Could not he say that it is because human rights are human rights? He said that maintaining the ban was no longer legally sustainable. Does he agree that it is also not ethically or morally sustainable? Does he feel any remorse about, or can he offer any apology for, the careers that have been wrecked under his Government, as well as under previous ones? How many careers have been wrecked under the Labour Government? How much does he think that that will cost? Does he not think that the £10,000 rumoured as the compensation to be offered for the wrecking of careers and the most intrusive, rude and oppressive harassment is pathetic and inadequate?

Mr. Hoon

I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that this matter has been given very careful consideration; I am sorry that he has not given it quite the care and consideration that I might have hoped for. In the briefing pack for commanding officers, there will be a number of details of further advice and information that can be given to service personnel who need it.

I made it clear that negotiations on compensation were still under way, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on amounts that have been agreed.

I should make it equally clear that, subject to obvious considerations of fitness, we shall look very sympathetically at applications from service personnel who wish to rejoin the services following discharge for homosexuality.

Mr. Tarn Dalyell (Linlithgow)

While I am a strong supporter of the Secretary of State in this matter, precisely what were the "some concerns" to which he referred in his statement and from whom did they come?

Does the Secretary of State think that the shade of the grandfather of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) would approve of his grandson's comments? What would he think, for example, about the situation of the Chindits? Speaking as a relation of Orde Wingate and as one who knows something about the matter, it is an outrageous slur on the Chindits, the Eighth Army and other units to suggest, as the hon. Gentleman did, that the decision is totally unacceptable. Since there are very many Mid-Sussexes floating around, would it not be a good idea to bring to public notice the distinguished service rendered by homosexual personnel and the units in which they operated—frankly, under force majeure— during the war?

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) wants my support, but for once I strongly support his comments.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend intrigued the House by conjuring the vision of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex floating around. I have learned to my cost about debating history with my hon. Friend, so I shall not pursue him on that. However, I shall deal with the concerns that he mentioned.

I made it clear that we recruit about 25,000—mostly young—people to the armed forces each year. They reflect our society, which has a mixed view of homosexuality. It would be absurd for me to pretend otherwise. Those concerns are reflected in wider society, as they will be within the armed forces and will have to be addressed by commanding officers as they implement the code of conduct and this policy. If I pretended otherwise, Madam Speaker—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is clear that I must pay more attention to who is occupying the Chair. Having carefully avoided all sorts of mistakes in the course of my observations, I apologise for not recognising you.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

A bet that I believe that I would win is that no member of the European Court of Human Rights has ever served in a crowded mess in a ship or in a cramped army bivouac. If any of them had done so, they would not have come to such a ludicrous decision, which will damage military effectiveness.

Does the Secretary of State understand that there is a great difference between those who hid their homosexuality and permitting homosexuality to be overt, which the decision will allow? Does he understand that no matter what guidance he gives, overt homosexuals will be ostracised and threatened in ships and in barracks, for example? That will do profound damage to the armed forces.

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to substitute his own prejudices for, first of all— [Interruption.] If Conservative Members will allow me to finish, I shall explain why I think that the hon. Gentleman is dealing in prejudice. First, he is substituting his own view of the law for that of the European Court of Human Rights. It is not acceptable for hon. Members to say that decisions of the courts should be decided in a different way because the courts cannot possibly interpret the law properly.

We are dealing with the European Court of Human Rights, which has carefully considered the law and reached a conclusion. Right hon. and hon. Members know full well that it is necessary in a democratic society that upholds the rule of law to apply such decisions. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is substituting his view of military effectiveness for that of the service chiefs, who have accepted the code of conduct. They have recognised that they must implement the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, and they are seeking to do so in a way that does not jeopardise military effectiveness in any way.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Does the Secretary of State not understand that his appalling decision will be greeted with dismay, particularly by ordinary soldiers in Her Majesty's Forces, many of whom joined the services precisely because they wished to turn their back on some of the values of modern society?

How can the right hon. Gentleman claim that operational effectiveness will not be impaired when the Government argued before the European Court of Human Rights that the presence of open or suspected homosexuals in the Armed Forces would have a substantial and negative effect on morale and consequently on the fighting power and operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces"? How can he go back on what was the Government's line? Does he not understand the resentment that is felt by some of us in this country that the power to decide the composition of Her Majesty's armed forces has been usurped by a bunch of foreign judges in some continental city, when it should be decided by the people of this country and by this Parliament? Does he realise that he has created an enormous minefield, in which housing will be only one factor?

Mr. Hoon

I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman is probably the authentic voice of the Conservative party today. I worry about its future if such prejudices are to be on display. I treat his observations as an attack not on the Government but on the Opposition Front-Bench team. Before he makes such intemperate comments, he should ask himself a basic question. In the unlikely event that he is part of a Government at some stage in the future, what decision would he take in the light of a European Court decision? If he cannot answer that question, he should not have said what he has just said in the most intemperate terms. He should think more carefully about the observations that he makes in the House, otherwise he will condemn himself and his party to a lifetime of opposition. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree with that.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I understand the Secretary of State's predicament, and I realise how difficult this problem is, but there are people who have served in the armed forces who have grave and serious reservations about this decision. Will he address one of the questions that he was asked earlier? I have not read the code of conduct—it has only just been published—but what will be the repercussions on individuals' rights to privacy?

Mr. Hoon

I have dealt with those reservations, so I shall not repeat myself. As for the individual, the essence of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights is to protect the privacy of individuals. I made it clear that, in devising the code of conduct, we had regard to the importance not only of military effectiveness and discipline, but the rights of the individual. Those two matters are complementary, and are set out in the code of conduct. That is why the service chiefs are willing to endorse this approach, and to lead the chain of command so as to ensure that the reservations to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which I accept, do not dominate the debate about the implementation of this policy.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Will the Secretary of State answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), which was based on the example given by the former Minister for the Armed Forces, now the Secretary of State for Scotland, of the woman who felt that her privacy might be invaded in certain circumstances? Why have the Government concentrated their service test on conduct of the individual rather than operational situations? Should not they be giving advice and guidance on whether heterosexuals should be expected to share accommodation with homosexuals, and whether homosexuals should be deployed in the front line in intimate living conditions? Despite this rushed attempt to deal with this most delicate situation, does he agree that this is a much more difficult and complex subject than perhaps he had anticipated, and that this statement is only the beginning of his troubles, not the end of them?

Mr. Hoon

In referring at the outset to the views of hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, I had in mind the hon. Gentleman's rather intemperate observations when the original decision was promulgated. He now seems to be rowing back from that and asking practical questions about the implementation of the policy.

I have been accused of delaying the implementation of the policy change, and now I am accused of rushing it. Somewhere in between, the Government may have got it just about right. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has not had time to study the document properly, but I have made it clear—and I repeat it—that at the heart of the code of conduct is an emphasis on operational effectiveness, and it clearly must also have regard to the privacy of individuals.

Operational effectiveness depends on a number of individuals working effectively together. Given the emphasis in the court's decision on the importance of privacy and the rights of the individual, it is right and appropriate to reconcile the importance of operational effectiveness with respect for the privacy of the individual. That is set out in the code of conduct, and it will be carried through in the operational guidance given to commanding officers. It will allow appropriate and proper decisions on the issue of accommodation that the hon. Gentleman raised.